The worlds of NASCAR and running are more closely intertwined than you might think. Earlier this month, we traveled to Pocono Raceway and chatted with four runners who happen to also be some of the best race car drivers in the country. The paths that Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Trevor Bayne, and Landon Cassill took in finding the sport are very different, but they all agree on one thing: Running makes them better NASCAR drivers.
I went for a run around the infield with Landon Cassill and Trevor Bayne on Friday morning, and then caught up with Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne later in the day. Much of what they told me was what I expected to hear, but there were definitely a few surprises in there too. I've included segments from those conversations here, paired with photos from throughout the weekend.
When did you start running?
I started running more a few months ago. I went through phases when I was younger where I used to run a lot more and I’d quit for a long time and start again.
What brought you back?
Well, you can’t stop the clock and as you age, it’s harder to stay in shape, harder to keep weight off. You’re trying to stay at the top of your game in a competitive sport like this where you race for ten months out of the [year], so just started it as something to do in my downtime, mainly to stay in shape.
How do you think that running helps you be a better NASCAR driver?
Well, the better I feel physically, the better I feel mentally. So, I think that helps. And, obviously we’re in the car for a long time—three to four hour races—and it’s hot, you lose a lot of fluids, and so being in physical shape helps you at the end of the race.
Are you doing anything specific out on the run to try and mimic the conditions that you face in the racecar?
No, not really. The only thing, I try to do when I run, and even when I ride, is to always save something for the end, and I try to finish strong, which is typical of what we’re trying to do on Sundays as well.
What’s the coolest spot you’ve ever gone for a run in?
Last night, I ran around the track for a couple laps. That was pretty neat. I’ve never been on a track, except for in a race car. That was fun.
How did it go?
I thought it went pretty good. For me, I was pretty fast. I think I averaged a 6:58 or something like that which is a lot faster than I typically do. So, I was happy with that since it was fairly hilly. I think I finished like 41st out of 300-and-some people, or however many were there so, for me, I thought that was pretty good.
That wasn’t your first race, was it?
First race without a car. [Laughs.]
What does your typical running week look like?
Typically, I drop the girls off with school and my wife, Katie, and I will run together on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. We put our two-year-old in the stroller and I’ll push the stroller. And then I really like cycling and mountain biking. So I try to do that, but if the weather doesn’t permit, then I’ll maybe run a couple more days a week.
Sundays are all used up by racing. We’re typically on the road, getting ready for the race, so no exercise on Sundays for me. We’re back out on Monday. Sunday is usually the only day I make sure I don’t do anything besides race.
What’s next on your running calendar?
I’m not really training for anything in particular. For racing, there’s nothing really coming up, but Katie and I were talking about training together for something later on this summer.
It takes a lot of work and a lot of training if you want to be competitive. No matter if you’re at a 5K or a 10K, or just running with your friends. If you want to be competitive and be that leader, it’s a lot of work. I like the competitiveness, it’s just like racing the cars.
When I’m running, it gives me a really good opportunity to to think and just kind of be on my own. I think a lot about racing when I’m running and about the track I’m going to, how I’m going to do there, what I’m going to do, and how that corner works. You can just see it as you’re running and get really in-depth with that as you’re pushing yourself. The more I get into what I’m up against, the harder I run, so the better workout I get. It works hand in hand. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always liked working out—it gets my mind away from other things and [lets me] focus on the things that I need to focus on at the time.
When did you start running?
I grew up playing basketball and baseball, so I had coaches and we did some running but since about 2007 is when I started running more distance.
What made you start running?
At the end of the Cup races, there [were] a lot of times I was super hot and just kind of worn out, and felt like if I was in better cardio and was used to the heat and had run outside a lot, that I would feel better. So I started on my own and then I hired a trainer in 2008.
How do you think running helps you as a NASCAR driver?
The biggest thing to me is feeling better the last half of the race. The middle of the summertime when it’s really humid out, really hot out, our cars are hot and we don’t have a ton of air inside of them. So, the last half of the race, the more I run, the better shape I’m in, the better I feel on the track and when the race is over.
Do you do anything special while you’re running to try and mimic what you feel in the racecar?
Well, we change it up, different workouts and things, whether it’s more high pace or slower pace, longer. I really enjoy sweating a lot, and I think that’s a lot closer to the racing, because after a race in the summer my suit is just soaked. So, [running] outside, two or three in the afternoon and really working hard in the heat is much closer to kind of what we’ll go through during a race.
How many miles do you run in a typical week?
Probably about twelve. There have been times when I ran way more than that—and obviously less—but right now, just being in normal shape, [I’m] working out four or five days a week.
I’ll do a light run the day after the race on Mondays. It’s usually my most worn out, low energy day, so I like to get a three-miler in at a pretty low speed, not pushing too hard. My Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I like to push a lot harder. More distance and definitely more pace. Friday and Saturday just depend on my schedule over the weekend, if I get much in or not. And I don’t usually do anything on Sunday before before the Cup race.
You were the I’m a Runner in our magazine back in 2013, and in that interview you mentioned that you had a running rivalry with Jimmie Johnson. Has that kept up over the years?
Jimmy’s a great biker. I’m not a very good biker compared to him, so he was beating me there, and I could beat him running and, yeah, we’ve kept that up over the years. It’s been fun because he’s a great athlete and pushes hard every single week. I do the same, but we do it on our separate time. There are some times where we got together and ran a couple halves together, a sprint-tri, and some 5Ks together. I have a 5K for our foundation and he does one with his foundation as well so we would end up running against each other a lot. It was fun.
How involved are you with the Kasey Kahne Foundation 5K?
I’m pretty involved. On race day, I go out, see the people, hang out with everybody that comes out. We’ve had some great turnouts over the years and it’s been a lot of fun to run from the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte and around the city and then back in the back of the Hall of Fame. We’ve had a lot of support from our partners and also from the fans and the runners in Charlotte. It’s cool to do that and see everybody’s excitement. We’ve enjoyed it, and have been able to raise money for for great causes for children and I like that part of it too.
When did you start running?
2011 is the first time I started getting into endurance sports, looking at triathlons, stuff like that. But the end of 2015 is when I really started taking running seriously. I had always enjoyed the bike and the swim, and running I just did because I had to. I never was a great runner, but that was because the effort I had put into it wasn’t really there.
I wasn’t doing smart training. When I first started out, I thought I had to sprint out every single run to get it all out and I didn’t understand training. So, this season is probably the most I’ve ever worked at it, and the most improvement I’ve seen. And I enjoy it a lot now.
How does your training schedule change during the racing season?
Saturdays are normally my longer day of training. I feel like I can get out and clear my head a bit and do a longer run that’s not really intense so I can recover from that as long as my nutrition’s good.
My training looks a little different during the off season. I don’t have to worry about the Sundays, I don’t have to worry about the hydration as much. For the races that are four hours, we’re losing five to ten pounds of water weight in the cars, so I have to keep that in account all week long during the season. But off season, I can really work on base, really up my miles.
How does running help you be a better NASCAR driver?
A number of ways. First of all, I don’t think you realize that you’re not fit until you become more fit. For me, I never would have said that I felt tired at the end of a race—after 500 laps around Bristol, I would just say that was normal. I’d get out and be sweating, my head’s hanging, ready to get something to drink, to go to the motorhome and sit down for a minute. But this year after the Bristol race, I got out and I still felt fresh, and I jogged up to my motorhome and I was like, “wow, this is way different.” I didn’t realize I was at a fitness deficit until I became more fit.
And then the mental aspect of it. I run with no music—every now and then I’ll listen to a podcast or a sermon or something—to work on the mental aspect of pushing when it counts. We never disconnect anymore. We’re always on our phones, or we’re watching TV, or doing something on our computer, so running for me is a good chance to get away from everything and think about my racecar, think about what’s going on around me. So I enjoy that disconnecting time when I get out on a long run.
Have you noticed that being a runner has helped control your heart rate while in the car?
Yeah. Two seasons ago, I wore a heart-rate strap in the car to see where I was at and my max heart rate hit 173 and my average was in the 150’s or 160’s. Earlier this season, I went out with a heart rate strap at Dover—it was a cool day, but it’s a pretty physical track—and my max heart rate was 144, I think, and the average was in the 120’s. So it’s quite a big improvement.
Do you analyze your races while you’re running?
I’m pretty analytical, so it’s hard for me to not think about my heart rate or my pace the whole time. But when I do have a free moment of thought, I’m thinking about my racecar, especially on those Saturday long runs. I get to run and think for ten miles or so and then come back to my crew chief with all kinds of ideas.
When you’re racing a 5K, is it similar to being on the racetrack or different?
Our races are more like a marathon or a half marathon. It’s more about endurance, being smart, pacing yourself, and taking care of your equipment—like taking care of your legs and your heart rate during a marathon—versus a 5K, where it’s all out like a sprint. Our races are more of a marathon, really pacing yourself and making sure that you’re there when it counts at the end.
What’s on your running horizon?
I set my sights on a fast 5K and didn’t necessarily meet my goal, so I’ll find another one later this year. I think Kasey Kahne’s foundation has a 5K in October. But that’s five months away, that’s a long time to work on a 5K, so I’ll find something in between. At some point, I’d love to do a half Ironman. The Ironman stuff just requires a ton of time and with a full time job in NASCAR, it’s kind of tough to make enough time for that, but I think a half Ironman’s perfect for the kind of endurance that we need in the racecars. I’m just going to continue to work on my running and biking, and try to get faster.
What made you decide to start running?
My dad is my inspiration when it comes to endurance sports. He had a health and fitness rejuvenation midlife and he started it with running, and then it evolved into cycling, it evolved into duathlon, triathlon. Eventually he did an Ironman.
He had been pushing me to really reflect on what I’m doing to squeeze every ounce of performance that I can on the racing side of things. At the time I was just exercising, but I wasn’t really training.
I started with signing up for a half Ironman. I’ve always been a pretty good runner, but not elite caliber or anything, so it wasn’t strange for me to run but I wasn’t in running shape. I signed up for the half Ironman, and I just started training. And since then, my dad and I have been doing Ironman events together.
How does being a runner help you be a better NASCAR driver?
Stockcar driving is an endurance sport. I see the same heart rate profile in the race car as I do in a half marathon. And from the neurological side of things, the focus that it takes, the pain tolerance of running is very similar to the focus that it takes to stay in the seat of a race car. I feel like they’re very similar in endurance. My nutrition plan in a four-hour NASCAR race is identical to how I approach a long distance triathlon or a half marathon.
No, I didn’t do it this year. People ask me all the time when I’m going to do something like that again and I most certainly will, I just don’t know what it’s going to be. That was a lot of fun, though. Running home after racing for 600 miles was pretty interesting. I noticed things about my body after that run that are different than after a typical 14-mile run. I had some different nags in my ankles, and on my right side there was tightness that wasn’t from the training load, but more from how my foot sits in the car and pushes the gas petal. After doing that for five hours and then running 14 miles, it lit up a new hot spot. And with my hips too, I felt tightness in areas I don’t usually feel from a run, because usually I start a good run midweek when I’m fresh, as opposed to getting out of the race car.
What’s your typical running routine?
I like to train for whatever running or triathlon event I’m training for, building that around my racing schedule so that they compliment each other. Right now, I’m in the early stages of getting ready for the Dublin, Ireland, 70.3 later on this year. So, I haven’t been running a ton because I’ve been letting my legs recover. When I get into the summer months, and I’m getting ready to peak for Dublin, I’ll probably be running 35 to 45 miles per week.
I try not to run on Mondays after a Sunday race because my hips are always so tight from being in a race car. It’s not always productive. If I do run, it’s late Monday evening, after a swim, after I’ve loosened up. Wednesdays are a good day for me to have a hard VO2-type speedwork day because I’m recovered from the race weekend but also I’m not close to the next weekend. And, Fridays, even though I’m at the race track, our schedules are split up enough that I like to do a lot of training. I’ll do long distance, low intensity training on Fridays, like if I have a 13- or 14-mile run planned, I’ll do that in between practice and qualifying.
What’s your favorite spot to go for a run?
I don’t know that there’s a number-one place that I like to go, but there are certain cities where I’ve found the right trails. I love running in Indianapolis, there are some great trails right out of downtown. I like going to Manchester, New Hampshire, when we race up there because I get to see my friend Ben True, and Sarah. I always try to get them to go for a very slow jog with me—a speedwork session for me, and a slow jog for them. I like Dallas, Texas, because there’s an awesome trail that you can see downtown from. I like going to Michigan because there’s a great pool that’s open late and so I always hit it up right when I fly in and then I swim again Friday morning and again Friday night. There’s not just one place, there’s a lot of places that I really enjoy.
Do you run with other NASCAR drivers?
Yeah, one of my friends, Trevor Bayne, drives the #6 car and is a good runner, a good athlete. Josh Wise as well is a tremendous triathlete, and really is one of my biggest motivators for training. He and I get competitive with each other which makes it a lot of fun. And, of course, Jimmie Johnson. He’s probably at the top of his game right now and I really enjoy training with him.